Lobby groups become increasingly necessary in times of hardship. When it comes to support, clarity of legislation and recognition, it seems that the UK furniture industry as a sector is often overlooked – making the work of the BFC more important than ever.
Last year, Paul von der Heyde spearheaded a number of initiatives on behalf of the industry, more often than not reacting to pressures from unexpected quarters – be they the withdrawal of funds for training, skewed energy subsidies or the reversal of long-standing legislation.
“It’s really important that we ensure the Government doesn’t make our life any more difficult than it already is,” says Paul.
The BFC’s voice has real potential – the confederation counts the heads of associations including the British Contract Furnishing Association (BCFA), Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA), the Association of British Furniture Manufacturers (BFM) and National Bed Federation (NBF) among its members, as well as associates from Anti Copying in Design (ACID), the Interior Design Association (IDA), sector skills body for furniture Proskills, the British Plastics Federation/Flexible Foam Group (BPF), the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers (AMUSF) and the City of London livery company and industry charity, the Furniture Makers (WCFM).
The group is not without its dissenters – it can be hard for organisations with their own agendas to agree unanimously on matters of policy. Having welcomed the return of the BFM to its fold in late 2011, the BFC’s voice has proved increasingly representative – although the Leisure & Outdoor Furniture Association (LOFA) has now stepped away from the confederation. “I’m hoping their departure will be temporary,” says Paul.
The BFC’s relationship with the All Party Parliamentary Furniture Industry Group (APPFG), which consists of MPs and members of the House of Lords with an interest in the industry, is crucial to its work. Stephen McPartland, MP for Stevenage and chair of the APPFG, has proved an invaluable champion of the industry’s concerns, and the best results in 2012 were derived by closer working partnerships between the two bodies.
“If anybody out there has issues they want to put to Government, we are here to do so,” says Paul. “We do make people aware of situations – they don’t always change things, but unless it’s brought to the Government’s attention, nothing happens at all. It’s a busy time right now, but the BFC is doing what it can.”
A number of issues rose to the top of the BFC’s agenda last year, the first being a threat to the UK’s stringent flammability regulations. Although these laws elicit mixed views from the trade, the BFC stands by them, helping ensure that UK upholstery and bedding products are safer for consumers. “It’s an important piece of legislation from a health and safety – and the British manufacturers’ – point of view.”
Next was the biomass subsidy issue – energy companies receiving subsidies for burning a quota of wood fuels, pushing the prices of raw materials up for furniture manufacturers – to which the BFC responded by organising an online campaign. This culminated in the delivery of petitions to Downing Street, signed by several thousand individuals and an impressive number of companies.
“It’s not that we disapprove of burning biomass,” says Paul, “but we do find it hard to stomach that that the energy companies are subsidised to do it. We just want a level playing field for the industry. As it stands, we’ll just keep the pressure on and hope it’ll make the difference.”
Industry training has suffered a series of cuts in recent years, which has prompted the BFC to focus on apprenticeship opportunities through Proskills. Says Paul: “We’re keen on developing the way in which the young are joining our industry. Through the WCFM, we are now very involved in the process – we’re now focusing on getting parents enthusiastic about the matter. Furniture and furnishings is a big sector – people shouldn’t fall into it by accident, they should want to come and join us.”
In October, a group of apprentices met the APPFG at its AGM at the Houses of Parliament, in an event designed to impress upon MPs the diversity of training needs for the furniture sector. “It’s probably the best engagement between the ‘real’ end of the industry and Government I’ve seen for a long time,” says Paul. “This year, we’re looking to make sure we organise similar events, so that the APPFG can see what is truly important to the industry.”
The BFC also held a four-day exhibition in the House of Commons in July, which aimed to reinforce the relative significance of the UK’s furniture industry. The exhibition was seen by a large number of civil servants, helping raise the profile of the sector and express the issues it faces.
Currently, the BFC is pursuing clarity on the European Timber Regulations – in particular, an anomoly that excludes seating products.
Due to the nature of its membership, the BFC tends to engage most actively in issues facing British manufacturers, yet Paul acknowledges that “the British furniture, bed and furnishings industry is about far more than just what is made in the UK”. Despite its bias, Paul insists that the confederation does embrace importers as well as manufacturers – yet he says that a great deal of work must be carried out simply to give the nation’s manufacturers a fair voice.
Of course, this includes its retailers – for whom Paul has every sympathy. “It’s really tough at the moment,” he says. “There is a real reluctance to spend, and still lots of closures going on. The spending report released the morning before the Autumn Budget reported that domestic spend was down 17% year-on-year – although it should be noted that other sectors, such as offices and commercial premises, have started to do very well since the Olympics.
“There will be bright sunshine as well as moments of gloom, wherever you are in business, and, although furniture is an essential purchase, I don’t think you can force people to want to buy furniture. The industry just needs to produce goods that persuade them to do so!”
In the light of these developments, the trade’s expectations of the BFC are high. No other body is considered as representative of the industry, and a shared voice is certainly essential when attempting to catch the Government’s ear. However, such a democratic organisation has inherent limitations – the BFC can only champion matters that affect the entire industry, and relies upon unanimous decisions to move forward.
“We are purely the industry’s political voice,” says Paul. “We have to be careful not to be seen as a ‘mother’ organisation for it. The Furniture Makers, on the other hand, has the ambition to be just that.”
Paul believes that the livery company – which incorporates the industry charity, the Furnishing Industry Trust (FIT) – is well placed to fulfil many of the representative functions the BFC cannot fulfil. In fact, he is lined up to replace Jonny Westbrooke as master of the Furniture Makers in 18 months’ time, essentially going full circle – the BFC originally arose from a WCFM initiative.
Difficult times make the need for industry representatives all the greater. The work of the BFC in recent years may have merely scratched the surface of the issues the furniture trade faces – but the fact that the concerns of a trade continue to be voiced to those in power makes it invaluable work indeed.